Pho is one of those foods, like gyros and hummus, that people are never sure how to pronounce. When I eat hummus, it's always prefaced with a good show-offy throat grinding sound. Gyro I pronounce with a "J" sound, which is probably wrong, but the whole "Mediterranean" thing irritates me: it's just fancied-up shawarma, folks.
Since I've never gotten a straight answer on how it's supposed to sound, I just say pho like "fo' sho'." Also, no doubt, wrong.
Pho was a favorite lunch-in-a-bowl when I worked in the San Francisco Bay area. I don't recall my first pho, but there is something about sitting down to a face-sized bowl of soup topped with noodles and raw beef shavings, and a plate full of fixins: basil sprigs, limes, bean sprouts and jalapenos. It seems like a dish just thrown together, but the broth, to get it right, takes a lot of love and boiling. Overnight processes, I'm told.
Pho 79, which fronts Gary Lane, actually gets it close. Their six classic phos are all variations on the theme. The one to get is pho dac biet ($8.50). It has thinly sliced beef and a handful of meatballs, which at Pho 79 also come sliced thin.
There is a seafood pho, too, but I generally avoid the seafood soups this far from the sea.
One way to judge a pho's quality is by the ruddiness of the meat when it arrives at the table—the rawer, the better. It's tough to find a place that brings raw meat to the table in this town.
My pho dac biet's beef still had some pink in the middle when it got to the table. I threw in a handful of sprouts and some basil leaves, squeezed the lime and started slurping.
The first bite of pho—especially after a long period of pholessness—says a lot. All of the pho flavors were there, but the broth did not pop like I remembered. I have no idea what it was missing (a few more hours on the flame, perhaps). For the second bite I rested the spoon against the lip of the bowl and took the chopsticks—rather nice wooden chopsticks—and grabbed a slice of beef, some noodles and a wet basil leaf. It was getting better.
And then the slurping began in earnest. Spoon. Chopsticks. Lean in close. Wipe brow. When I needed a rest from the soup, I dug into a surprisingly hot beef salad ($8.50)—an entree actually. Hot as in spicy. And as in, I'm going back for more. Spicy bits of beef and cooked tomatoes surrounded a bed of red cabbage. Its temperature cooled my mouth from the soup, but not for long.
A Tiger beer ($3) helped as well. As did some leftover thit nuong cuon—charbroiled pork spring rolls ($7.50) that came as an appetizer. They were very tightly bound in rice paper, very fresh and came with a sweet, palate-cleansing dipping sauce.
As the meal progressed, the proprietor's two little girls circled around the restaurant on bicycles. Some finicky, uninterested diners may have been annoyed by this activity, but I found it endearing. It added to the homestyle-feel of the entire meal. The owner brought a stack of bowls and plates and silverware to the table, and instead of awkwardly placing them in front of each member of the party as is the custom in most western restaurants, she just left the pile on the table for us to distribute.
While Pho 79 is located in a bland strip mall off State Street, it does achieve a bit of an authentic vibe through the owner's attitude and the presentation of the meal. I avoided the Chinese menu, which seems tacked on. I'm not sure why anyone would want fried shrimp ($8.25) or Mandarin chicken ($8.25) when they could attempt to order bun thit nuong ($7.50) or banh hoi ($8.75).
Unless, of course, you order by the number. But then it all sounds the same. And you don't get to say thit or hoi. Which, fo' sho', ain't that hard to say.
—Nathaniel Hoffman likes to kick it pho school.